Belmont Club

A Civilization with Feet of Clay: Can Truth Be Separated from the Fallen Teller?

North Carolina State University scholar Jason Miller was so dismayed by the newly declassified information on Martin Luther King that he halted his “two scholarly projects about King.” For one thing, any new research on King could potentially become radioactive in the era of #MeToo. Miller wrote:

I’ve also started thinking about what happens next.

What will the next Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations look like? Will other details emerge? Will more women come forward? Will community centers, schools and streets need to be renamed? Will statues come down, or will they remain – and give fodder to those who justify keeping Confederate monuments?

If Washington and Jefferson can become villains overnight, why not King? Western academic culture is besieged by the modern version of the Donatist heresy, a 4th-century belief that “Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid.” Since King was not flawless, doesn’t that damage his legacy?

Modern woke Donatism has plunged public life into a frenzy of virtue signaling since today truth comes from virtue. The highest form of virtue is victimhood, which is practically the new martyrdom, a necessary prerequisite for any public argument to be taken seriously. That has resulted, Psychology Today notes, in an epidemic of victim hoaxes.

It is no longer enough to be the best person for the job. You’ve got to have an angle. But basing truth on virtue is problematic in Washington because there is so little of the latter that the former is equally scarce. As Jason Miller noted, scholars were at first reluctant to believe the reports about King precisely because J. Edgar Hoover had even less virtue. If truth were based on virtue, then how could the FBI ever be trusted?

The only way out of this dilemma is to entertain the possibility that the truth can be separated from the teller. St. Augustine, himself a reformed sinner (and target of several Donatist assassination attempts), explained that “the sacraments were valid and efficacious even when administered by an unworthy priest, for Christ was the actual actor of the sacraments.” To paraphrase the X-Files, the truth is out there, external to us.

The Taliban and the Boko Haram are wrong to oppose the polio vaccine as a “conspiracy of Jews and Christians to make Muslims impotent and stunt the growth of Muslims” because the pharmaceutical mechanisms of the drug would still be valid whoever invented them, and indeed would have eventually been discovered by somebody else had Salk and Sabin not happened upon them first.

Augustine’s idea of independent truth has its modern expression in the notion of trustless systems, so called because integrity largely reposes in system itself rather than the human beings who may be associated with it. “When we talk about trustless systems, we mean that our ability to trust it does not depend on the intentions of any particular party, which could be arbitrarily malicious.” The scientific method is supposed to depend on physical experiment, not the character of the researchers. This would not be possible if truth were completely dependent on human virtue. One familiar attempt at creating a semi-trustless system is the U.S. constitutional system of checks and balances, which almost assumes that people are scoundrels.

Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary … experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

The idea was checks and balances applied to men who were not angels might prove superior to British kings and other persons of quality if the standard was external to both. This notion has carried over into modern blockchain systems, where every step is unambiguously identified, consensus enforced by explicit rules and reproducible by any party. A maximum of trust is delegated to a verifiable system and as little as possible is left to the virtue of the participants.

The separation of truth from teller lets us use things made by people we may not approve of. By recognizing the distinction between the message and the messenger it is possible both to acknowledge the personal failures of Washington, Jefferson and King yet appreciate the greatness of their accomplishments. The fact that Jefferson owned slaves shouldn’t lead to repudiating the Declaration of Independence. Just because King had serious defects doesn’t argue for a return to Jim Crow. Without this separation, civilization would collapse like a heap of sand.

Separating them also allows us to avoid the problem of multiple truths. The difficulty of relying on “my truth,” as Ben Shapiro noted, was that you wound up with more truths than you could shake a stick at.

Instead of unity through truth, the Left has offered feelings — the nice, comforting illusion that if something is wrong with your life, it’s actually somebody else’s fault. And if you don’t have facts to back that up — if you can’t point to the evidence of discrimination or cruelty or malice — then we’re supposed to believe you anyway, because if we do anything else that would be challenging “your truth.”

And that’s political correctness in a nutshell: “my truth” over THE truth.

Multiple truths are like counterfeit. If anybody can mint it the equivalent of the value double-spending problem leads to inflation by creating new truths that did not previously exist and ironically devalues “my truth” in relation to other “truths.” This is clearly illustrated in the case of self-defined gender, which went directly from two — not to three as one might expect — but to fifty and then seventy-one. Starting with the 50 already available in the U.S., “Facebook worked with UK groups Press for Change and Gendered Intelligence to add 21 new options to ensure the list best reflected the ways UK users may choose to describe themselves.” Can they ever get it down to single digits again?

The challenge posed by the new revelations is less to King’s virtue than to modern politically correct ideology. Can we still believe in heroism in a world without heroes? Can we build a world from imperfect clay? Or are we doomed to become a civilization of embittered cynics? Not so long ago it was an article of faith that the road to salvation was thronged by sinners and was in fact designed for sinners alone. Perhaps it still is. The difference was that then we knew it.

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The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres

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